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He's a master at recovering Old Masters

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ALR may have altruistic motives, but it turns a profit, too. It costs about $50 (more for an exceptionally valuable work) to register a missing piece on ALR's database. When would-be buyers wants to verify that a painting, for example, is not stolen, they pay a fee from $50 to $100 for a search of ALR's database. A "clean" item is issued a certificate. When a piece is restored to its owner, a commission (typically 20 percent of the item's value) is levied.

Radcliffe has resisted calls to put the database online. "A lot of people say this would result in more recoveries, but it's not true. Thieves would check it, too, and make sure that suspect items remain out of view."

Searches are done by the 25-member ALR team. Key words - the artist's name or a striking feature of the work - are entered. Any matches bring up thumbnail pictures and brief descriptions. Typing in "Picasso," for example, yields 600 hits. Apparently there's a lot of plundered cubism out there.

When missing items are identified by ALR experts - in auction catalogs, at fairs, or brought to their attention by potential buyers - Radcliffe pounces. By notifying the seller that he cannot sell an item identified as stolen, he begins a delicate negotiation that he hopes will bring the artwork back to its owner. Radcliffe has as many as 200 "live" cases at any one time.

Perhaps his most famous case climaxed last month when a court case in London unveiled the whereabouts of six paintings stolen almost 30 years ago from the Stockbridge, Mass., home of Michael Bakwin. The ruling followed six years of tortuous, clandestine dealings with an elusive lawyer who says the works were stowed in his attic by the thief, whom he had represented.

The lawyer, Robert Mardirosian, says he had been holding out for a reward, but that he will now return the paintings.

"It's the highest-value item we've recovered, and probably the oldest theft we've dealt with," says Radcliffe. It was also the most complex, he adds.

Recoveries range from the banal to the spectacular. The Bakwin case involved art worth more than $30 million, including a C├ęzanne painting returned early in the negotiations. An 18th-century bookcase worth more than $600,000, swiped in Ireland 16 years ago, was seized at a London art fair when an expert spotted it five years ago. Three paintings by Renoir, C├ęzanne, and Gauguin were recently returned to a Buenos Aires museum after the ALR blocked an attempted sale. They had been snatched in Argentina's biggest-ever art theft in 1980.

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